ALICE FLETT AGAINST THE PRESSIntroduction
Alice Flett complained on behalf of the Wizard of New Zealand, her partner, about an article published in The Press on 14 February 2015 headlined “Free car-parking for ‘arrogant’ Wizard”.
The complaint is upheld in part.
The 82 year old Wizard is a well-known and colourful Christchurch character. For many years he has engaged in open-air oratory and debate in the Square (more recently in New Regent Street at the invitation of retailers), as well as through the letters column of The Press and on his own website. Wikipedia relates that in 1990 he was described as the “Wizard of New Zealand” by his old friend, then Prime Minister, Mike Moore; in 2009 he was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
The Press article reported there were tensions in New Regent Street about the Wizard’s presence, behaviour and free city council car park for a few hours each day. It quoted comments both for and against the Wizard. Some saw him as “annoying” and “arrogant”; others viewed him as a colourful asset and a tourist-draw card for Regent Street. The anti-Wizard quotes were all anonymous, while those supporting him were identified.
The complainant cites a wide variety of issues and various Press Council principles. Under the principle of accuracy, fairness and balance, the complainant says that the article builds up a strongly negative impression of the Wizard, which does not accord with the positive views of most shopkeepers in New Regent Street. In support she has supplied the Council with an unpublished letter to the editor of The Press from the Chairman of the New Regent Business Association strongly supporting the Wizard. The letter says The Press article is misleading, by giving the impression that a significant number of businesses in the street do not like the Wizard. Ms Flett also complains, under the principle of comment and fact that the article gives an incorrect account of the Wizard’s driving of his “art” car (a double ended Volkswagen beetle) at speed in New Regent Street. She considers this implausible, given the nature of the car and the layout of the street. The headline is also complained about, as giving an unfairly negative impression of the Wizard. Under the photographs and graphics principle, Ms Flett complains that a photo of the Wizard in a typical declamatory pose is being used unfairly to support the impression of his alleged rudeness and arrogance.
The editor has provided a detailed response and has also apologised to Ms Flett for the delay in responding to her initial complaint to The Press.
The editor believes the article is fair and balanced, distinguishes between comment and fact, supports freedom of expression by accurately reporting people’s honestly held opinions and presents a broad range of views. She notes that an offer to publish a 500 word response was declined, that The Press continues to print letters from the Wizard and that, as a public figure, the Wizard has to expect to be the subject of public discussion.
In relation to the headline the Editor believes it is justified as it presents a key element of the article. The account of the car being driven at speed is explained as being a direct quote from an anonymous informant. On the anonymity which was accorded only to those informants who were critical of the Wizard, the editor says there were tensions between New Regent Street retailers for and against the Wizard. She asserts those not supporting him were afraid to cause arguments with their fellow retailers and of angering the Wizard. Although The Press does not normally support anonymity the editor was satisfied there was good reason in this case.
Discussion and Decision
The article about the Wizard is more in the nature of gossip, rather than one which raises issues of strong public interest. The newspaper treats it as a news story with a strong headline, accompanying large photograph and three columns of text. This gave it prominence and impact. The article led with quotes from anonymous sources which were all anti-Wizard, while pro-Wizard sources were all named.
On the issue of anonymity of sources, it is relevant that in Case 937 the Council reminded editors that “anonymous sources should ideally be used only when information of public interest cannot be gleaned any other way or, for example, when fronting up publicly will jeopardise the physical safety or continued employment of the source”. The public interest (as opposed to public curiosity) in this local story is not strong enough to justify anonymity of sources on only one side of the debate. If the negative comments were to be used the commentators should “demonstrate the courage of their convictions” as suggested by the Council in Case 2147. There is no suggestion that the physical safety or continued employment of the anonymous sources was relevant. On this aspect the Council considers there was unsatisfactory use of anonymous sources and the complaint is upheld.
On accuracy, fairness and balance, the headline, tone, order and selection of comments, and emphasis of the article are negative towards the Wizard. The end of the article contained counter-balancing comments as it quoted a number of people who were strongly positive about the Wizard. The issues of fact raised by the complainant are strongly contested by the editor, principally on the grounds that actual comments of informants were being reported. Whether the overall article itself is fair is more problematic. The story was in essence about a conflict of views on the Wizard’s presence in Regent Street, and there will always be difficulty with satisfying all sides in such an argument. But the overall impact of the article, headline and photograph amount, in the Council’s view, to unfair treatment of the Wizard. On the Principle of fairness the complaint is upheld.
The headline “Free car-parking for ‘arrogant’ Wizard” conveys a selective view of the overall content of the article. Readers have to go to the last column to discover the existence of strongly counterbalancing, substantial support for the Wizard in New Regent Street. However, the headline contains a key element of the story. On balance, on this issue, the complaint is not upheld.
On the issue of photographs and captions, the photograph of the Wizard in full oratorical flight is not necessarily misleading in itself, as most people in Christchurch will be aware of his activities. The complaint on this aspect is therefore not upheld.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Vernon Small and Stephen Stewart.